In 2013, I shared a post written by a New York City elementary teacher, entitled “Data Shows Not Enough Teaching.” She is back today with an update, and although there has been a change in administration in New York City, testing at her school is excessive as ever.
By Katie Lapham.
While the public in New York is becoming increasingly outraged over Pearson’s Common Core assessments in English-language arts (ELA) and math, which, for 2015, will be administered for six days in April, little is known about the Common Core-aligned interim assessments that are given to many New York City (NYC) students in grades K – 5. As far as I know, few parents (if any) are notified of these assessments and teachers receive test details just one day prior to the start of testing.
The week of February 9, 2015, over the course of four days, my NYC elementary school administered standardized mid-year benchmark assessments in grades K-5. They were untimed and make-ups had to be given to absent students. In grades 3-5, Schoolnet’s Common Core-aligned periodic assessment was used for ELA and the Common Core-aligned GO Math! middle-of-year assessment was given for math. Grades K-2 used Pearson’s Common Core-aligned ReadyGEN end of unit 2 assessment for ELA and the middle-of-year GO Math! assessment for math.
I administered the first grade benchmarks to my class of 25 students. Pearson’s ReadyGEN ELA assessment was comprised of five multiple choice comprehension questions and five multiple choice vocabulary questions. It also contained a writing question for which students stated an opinion and included a reason (a detail from the text) to support their opinion. While students were given a copy of the realistic fiction reading passage, I was instructed to read it aloud to them three times. From the groans and sighs emitted from my students as I commenced the second reading, I deduced that they didn’t find the passage to be particularly riveting.
A number of questions and answer choices, which I also read aloud to them, were poorly constructed and confusing. A vocabulary question tricked students by offering large and huge as possible answer choices for What does enormous mean? For one of the comprehension questions – and for the writing piece – students were required to go back to the text to get the answer. I would have lost points on the test if I hadn’t re-read the part of the text that contained the information. Students had to know where to go in the text and they had to be able to both decode and comprehend the paragraph in order to answer the questions correctly.
As this test was administered in a whole class setting, I found it exasperating trying to make sure the students were paying attention and answering the right question. I observed that some of my strongest readers randomly picked answers – the wrong ones – and theorized that they weren’t paying close attention to the read aloud and/or to the reading of the questions. Only the multiple choice answer choices appeared on the test, not the questions.
The first grade GO Math! assessment was comprised of 40 multiple choice questions, which I administered over the course of two days. Of the 40 questions, 15 tested skills that students haven’t yet learned. As I alluded to above, giving a test to a group of 25 first graders is emotionally taxing for the teacher. The kids sit together at tables so dividers are needed to prevent cheating. Also, first graders aren’t yet test savvy; some don’t know to consider all four answer choices before choosing the correct one. Multiple choice is NOT a developmentally appropriate method to use in formally assessing six and seven-year-olds. Furthermore, because the test is read to students, teachers must be vigilant to ensure that students are on the right question. For these reasons, I decided to split up the class into three groups for the administration of the GO Math! assessment. While I was testing a small group, laptops occupied the other students. For group three, I had to translate the test into Spanish.
When I received the details of these mid-term benchmarks, I sent an email to my principal expressing my concerns about over-testing our youngest learners and suggesting that we instead use alternative assessments to measure their progress in math and ELA. After all, there is no dearth of testing in grade one; the school year, for example, begins and ends with NYC performance tasks (MOSLs – measures of student learning – used for teacher evaluation purposes only). The first week of February, I administered the unit six GO Math! test and had planned to give the unit seven test right after mid-winter break (I will not be giving it in light of the hefty mid-year benchmark I just administered).
For ELA, we conduct running records, which provide us with students’ reading levels, four to five times a year. There are also Common Core-aligned monthly writing pieces that measure students’ understanding of persuasive, narrative and informative writing. Couldn’t the results from these assessments have been used instead?
I did not get a response to my email. However, I did receive a memo – sent to all staff members – that the results of the mid-term benchmark assessments would be included in the “Mid-Point Review of School Progress of the 2014-15 Comprehensive Education Plan.”
What is sacrificed due to excessive testing
The mid-term benchmark assessments given the week of February 9 were highly disruptive. All of grade one was in the middle of a rich and engaging ELA unit on fairy tales, which we teachers created on our own outside of the unpopular and developmentally inappropriate ReadyGEN curriculum. We were comparing different versions of fairy tales and identifying elements of fairy tales in each one. I was doing The Three Little Pigs – the original compared to Jon Scieszka’s version told from the wolf’s perspective – and had hoped to do a hands-on experiment using different materials to build model houses. Students would provide reasons in determining which materials were best to use to build a strong house.
I also envisioned writing our own class fairy tale. I pictured charts – one for each fairy tale element- covering the classroom walls. Students would write their ideas on post-it notes and would place them on the correct chart. We’d discuss and vote on the ideas students would have come up with for characters and setting, and we’d consider which elements to include in our tale: magic, good versus evil, number patterns, love and so on. I imagined my students’ big imaginations on display as well as their diversity as portrayed through their writing and illustrations. After fundraising to cover the cost of printing our class fairy tale, each student would have been thrilled to take home their own copy. I also thought about asking my husband, who works in book publishing, to explain to my students the process of getting a book published. Unfortunately, it won’t be possible to continue with this unit as we were recently instructed to use Common Core-aligned ReadyGEN as our primary ELA curriculum. Future monthly writing pieces – including student work for bulletin boards – must reflect ReadyGEN content and skills.
In addition to the loss of meaningful learning opportunities, I was frazzled and our class routines were largely dismantled as a result of testing for four days during the week of February 9. For young learners, structure is critical. I euphemistically referred to the assessments as activities – even using the word as a verb (“I have to activity group two now”) – but my students were not fooled. Behavior – both mine and the students- deteriorated that week.
Finally, when I return to school next week our professional development sessions will be used to norm and score these mid-term benchmark assessments, which were chosen by the administration. Because our first graders answered the questions directly in their test booklets, I will have to transfer their answers onto grids, which will then be scanned; their scores captured in an online NYC Department of Education database. This means I will bubble-in 1,000 answers for math (40 questions x 25 students) and 300 for ELA (12 questions x 25 students), a mind-numbing, labor intensive task. There will be no time to plan units of study with my colleagues nor will there be time to organize field trips or brainstorm effective classroom management techniques.
A Tale of Two Public Education Systems
It is important to note that the excessive testing of students in grades K-2 is not happening at every NYC school. My daughter was not given mid-year benchmark assessments at her public school, which is committed to teaching the whole child. I suspect that schools with the lowest test scores – and therefore the biggest “achievement gap” to close – as well as weak parent involvement and a high poverty rate are the ones most susceptible to over-testing. Fearing potential school closure, administrators likely want to show the NYC Department of Education that they took all the “right” steps in preparing students – beginning in kindergarten- for the high-stakes Common Core state tests administered in grades 3-8. This is further evidence of a growing trend that I have been observing in NYC public schools and beyond. While some state and city mandates are uniform – such as the administration of April’s Common Core state tests – schools with highly educated and relatively affluent parents tend to offer more of a project-based, arts-rich education. Test prep exists but not to the same extent as in Title I schools like mine, and resources are available for enrichment programs.
What do you think of this? Are you seeing students lose meaningful opportunities to learn due to excessive testing of this sort?
Katie Lapham teaches first grade in New York City. You can read more of her work at her blog, Critical Classrooms, Critical Kids.
Image by Steve Czajka, used with Creative Commons license.